Boston Food: Colonial Dishes to Current Delights

Snacks for sale at Boston's City Hall Plaza. Photo by Devin Tweedie

Specific staples of Boston cuisine have survived hundreds of years due to their importance to the Boston and New England culture.

Stewed beans, later Boston’s famous baked beans, and chowder have existed since the first settlers in the 17th century, explained food historians Kathleen Fitzgerald and Keith Stavely.

Although not as recognized, brown bread, baked with rye, was also a popular treat.

As Boston and the New England region developed, Fitzgerald explained houses began being built with hearths in their kitchens before they had brick bake ovens. The hearths were used for cooking beans, she said. By the 18th century, bake ovens began being built into Boston houses but were time consuming to use.  Thus, baking beans became a treat for households when they were made, explained Fitzgerald.

As the region grew and industrialized, classic recipes, such as baked or stewed beans, were not forgotten. However, some ingredients were altered. Molasses, for example, began to be added to brown bread. 

Fitzgerald explained that past generations were very proud of the simplicity of the foods, so alterations were never major nor extravagant.  Molasses only sweetened the relatively basic brown bread recipe. Chowder was originally made with only water and fish before cream or milk was added.

Despite the simplicity, these Boston-born treats created a distinct cultural identity for the region.

“They have converted these foods, that had been developed, into these symbols of the New England way of life,” said Stavely.  The foods allowed for Bostonians and New Englanders to remain connected to their heritage.

“The food had different meanings at different times and were made slightly differently but if you made a pot of stewed beans with some salt pork in it today, the Puritans of 1630 would be able to recognize it,” said Fitzgerald, “Likewise with the brown bread, if you baked it with rye and cornmeal, they’d know it.”

Despite differences in way of life and diversities in cuisine as the region developed, baked beans, chowder, brown bread and many other dishes never went extinct.  Baked beans are synonymous with Boston in more ways than just having it in its name. Following recipes that past generations handcrafted allows the modern day citizen to stay in touch with their history; To first handedly experience the flavors of colonial Boston.

“We kind of hope that there’ll be more interest in New England food,” said Fitzgerald, “it’s a great way into history.” 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.